The music industry is a gruelling place. Careers are made on chance encounters and broken on the corporate bottom line, with livelihoods and creativity thrown into turmoil with ease and without remorse.
Just ask Dan Le Sac, a DJ and producer who rose to prominence as one half of duo Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip. After working as a record buyer in HMV, Dan met spoken-word artist Pip, and remixed a handful of his songs. Soon, they made a tune together, with Pip delivering spoken word and rap over Dan’s electronic beats. Their creation broke into the charts in 2008, and off the back of ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’, the duo went worldwide, touring everywhere from London to Japan. Over the next five years they released a trio of albums, and ended their partnership in 2014 after their biggest and most successful tour to date.
“That was kind of it”, Dan says today. “A big draw with the band was Scroobius Pip, more than the Dan Le Sac part of it, which is just the nature of things. The frontman gets the accolades. I went into a bit of a no man’s land of that submerging artist era of your career, where your peak is behind you. You either quit, which is what I planned to do. Or you just keep plugging away and hoping that you survive.”
With Pip’s success after the duo split, their careers appeared to be going in wildly different directions. In 2016, when Dan released his album ‘Cherished, Overthrown’ it sold about 300 copies. “The industry’s changed,” he says. “I was like yeah, I’m out. I think I’m gonna go get a job.”
Dan had been into gaming from a young age, sneaking into his dad’s room to play Ultima VI, and during his time touring with Scroobius Pip, he got into it in a bigger way. From there, he dabbled with Twitch streaming, and began striking up conversation with folks in the online gaming sphere. On a whim, Dan got chatting with his acquaintance Mike Bithell, an indie game dev (and owner of Bithell Games) who was then best known for Thomas Was Alone. Their chat turned into a discussion about pitching for video game soundtracks.
“It took ages for anyone to care. Maybe ‘care’ is the wrong word – but to find the right fit. I did a lot of pitching and a lot of demos for games that never existed.”
Eventually, though, it was Bithell who offered Dan’s first full-on slice of video game soundtrack action: Subsurface Circular. Since then, the medium has shown itself to be both a constantly changing and evolving experience, and a comfort zone for Dan from his time in a band.
Subsurface Circular, especially for a first showing in video game soundtrack making, allowed Dan Le Sac to bring the creative perspective of a musician into the game. For those of you who haven’t played, Subsurface Circular is a game about being a robot detective on the London Underground. Dan was tasked with making a theme song and a few 30-second stings. The project evolved though, as robots got on the tube with headphones on, listening to all kinds of music genres. If you noticed these android commuters bobbing their heads in time with their tunes, that’s all Dan’s doing. Since, he’s also soundtracked Quarantine Circular and Arcsmith.
The special thing about composing video game music for Dan Le Sac is how liberating it feels as a creative process.
“It’s really similar to being in a band in the sense that when you’re making music for a game, you are there to support the story or support the world-building. When I was writing for Scroobius Pip, I was there to emphasise and accentuate what he was saying and the emotion he’s trying to get across. I’m there to bring tension to what he’s doing. So it’s really similar in that respect. But the flip of it is, for games you’re freer, because it’s not about you, the musician. It’s about the game. My name is irrelevant. It’s about whether what I write builds a world”.
Without the pressure of having to create music and a performance that reflects what the audience thinks a ‘Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip performance’ should be, Dan says it’s a whole lot easier to figure out the direction and vibe based on a collaboration with the team making the game. As I write this, I’ve been listening along to the lovely tunes from the Quarantine Circular soundtrack. As a whole, the soundtrack is a really gorgeous progression combining tension, melancholia, and confusion, perfectly capturing the game’s mood as well as whatever mood the player happens to associate it with.
That’s why Dan’s sticking with video game music, for now. “The industry has changed quite a bit from when I started.” he elaborates. “The idea of Dan Le Sac, the solo artist, being on the radio, and all that isn’t very appealing to me. If you want to do well in the streaming age, it’s about getting attention and keeping that attention on you. And one of the ways you do that is you release music ridiculously regularly. If you’re a pop act, or a popular act, as such, you want to be releasing something new every six weeks. Even if that’s just one song or a new remix, you need that algorithm to just like you and see you as someone who’s worth paying attention to.”
“For me, I like crafting a thing. All the pieces I’ve released in the last few years have only been like 20 minutes long, but they’re written as a piece. I’d like people ideally, to listen to them in one go. They move in a certain way and out of context, some of those songs don’t work, which isn’t something that fits with the streaming thing. And really, if you’re, if you’re not paying for PR and plugging, like radio pluggers and podcast pluggers and playlist pluggers in the music industry, you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
For the time being then, it looks like we can expect a whole lot more from Dan Le Sac, and with all the stunning talent chewed up and spat out by record labels and promoters, Dan’s career trajectory offers an insight into the potential paths to follow.
James Law is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME.